Tag Archives: Judaism

The Panchatantra: Morality via Death

Violent PanchaTantra
Westerners often romanticize the myths of other lands while belittling their own scriptures. As I wrote here, the Hindu Mahabharata has far more death than the Jewish Tanakh (the “Old Testament”).  And in this illustration I show a few of the many stories from the Panchatantra, that use death and cruelty to teach morality. Ancient writers had a different world than ours – death was always a threat.

When I first began to explore the Panchatantra, I read these stories to my daughter.  She was quick to point out how horrible all the murder morality was and didn’t want to hear any more. So now I am alone to explore this book academically. 🙂

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Guf: a Jewish soul myth

GufAbove I have illustrated a Jewish myth for the origin of the soul. As you can see, it is a variant of the “Heavenly Bank of Souls” theme. This story does not come from the Tanakh (OT) but from other Jewish sacred sources but from the Talmud and the Kabbalah texts (one reader in the comments suggest this is only from Kabbalah texts, no matter, it is an interesting myth floating out there is some forms of Judaism).  And remember my post which tries to weaken the narrow view many Christians (and those influenced by that culture) that sees “scriptures” in a narrow sense — a Protestant scriptura sola sense.

My graphics is labeled A-F which I use below to tell the Guf story:

(A) Tree of Souls: In Paradise (heaven) grows a tree of souls (a Tree of Life) upon which all the souls once began.  Some versions have the souls on the branches with birds, in others, they are on the roots. In some versions, this tree is still in the garden of Eden.
“I am like a cypress tree in bloom; your fruit issues forth from Me.” (Hos.14:9)
He drove the man out, and stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Gen. 3:24).

(B) Falling Souls: When ripe, the souls they fall off the tree and descend to a chamber for holding.

(C) Guf: AKA, Treasury (Otzar) of Souls or Hall of Souls. called “Guf” or Guph or any of several other transliterations.  This if felt to exist in the Seventh Heaven.  There are those that say that Guf contains an infinite number of souls, while others insist there is only a finite number of sols in it, and that the Messiah will not come until the Guf has been emptied of every soul.  Others say that from the day the Temple was destroyed, no more souls entered the Guf, and when it has been emptied of all the remaining soulds, the Messiah will come.

(D) Angel Gabriel: The angel Gabriel reaches into the treasury (Guf) and takes out a soul, putting it into a human embryo.

(E & F) Angel Lailah & the Womb: The Angel Lailah then guards the embryo while it is in the woman’s womb.

There are many more Jewish myths to explain the origin and fate of the soul, but I thought you’d enjoy this one. So, if you think this is guff, look up your own. 🙂

Questions to readers: Illustrations help me remember a story far better than dry black-and-white paragraphs. Did you enjoy this illustration?  Do you have another “soul origins” myth you think would be fun to illustrate?

My Sources: Tree of Soul: The Mythology of Judaism by Howard Schwartz (google books) & “Guf” (wiki)

Pic Credits: tree, Gabriel, Lailah, fetus, earth, the souls & Guf are mine.

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Heavenly Soul Bank & Right Belief

Soul_BankLots of religions believe that a person’s soul exists before that person is born (“the pre-existence of souls”). This Heavenly Soul Bank idea is held by many Jews, Muslims, Hindus and even Christians.

In the Soul Belief course I’m taking, the professor interviews the students and asks what they were taught as children about the soul. Many of the young students had naive, confused stories. Their confusion reminded me of what I have written many times: most lay folks have sloppy theology. Mind you, I don’t blame them — leave it to the religious professionals to argue theology.

But much of Christianity is founded on “right belief”.  So it seems odd to me that it is OK for a believer to have sloppy soul beliefs, but the believer has got to believe the right Jesus story or they burn in hell.

Even the Jesus story comes in many variants with lay believers often holding very weird mixes that their religious professionals would just shake their heads at.  But who cares if they get their soul theology wrong, their communion theology wrong, their end-times theology wrong, their trinity theology wrong, or even their resurrection theology wrong?  Do you really think their god cares?  If so, everyone in that class may very well burn in hell for eternity.

Questions to readers: Do you agree that my example of various soul beliefs, helps illustrate the bizarre nature of Christianity’s “right-belief-is-essential-for-salvation” concept.

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Did Jews Borrow Greek Myths: 3 examples

Myth_Sembelance_Theories_GreeceHow are Shared Myths Possible?

Did the Jews borrow from Greek Mythology — I’d bet they did, but literalist Christians vehemently disagree.

When one culture has very similar stories compared to another there are three things that could have happened – see my illustration to the right showing models of where Jews may have gotten their stories.

Either (b) they borrowed the story from the other culture, or (a) both cultures developed them completely independently.  The third option is (c) the Judeo-Christian option that Yahweh shared the stories between cultures to help others eventually understand Israel’s truths.

Three Possible Shared Myths

Neil Godfrey just publish a short post on three similar myths shared between Bible myths and Greek myths (taken from West’s book, see below). To aid in reading Neil’s fine post, I have explored some of the time elements below.  You can see that the answer is not easy.

(1) Greek Spy in Trojan War,  Hebrew Spy in Fall of Jericho

Trojan War: recorded between 500s-800s BCE by Homer (and others) — oral tradition earlier.  Dates range from 1100-1300 BCE.

Fall of Jericho: Joshua 6:1-27, possibly 1400-1500 BCE by literalist Christian archeologists.  Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon claimed the walls of Jericho fell around 2,000 BCE before the Biblical story was created which was 800 years after the fall of Jericho.  But all of this, as you can imagine, is controversial.  And some feel that later penned story may be based on the Ugaritic Epic Poem from around 1500-1200 BCE.

(2) Arion & the Dolphin & Jonah & The Big Fish

Jonah: supposed prophet during 786-746 BCE

Arion: first mentioned 665 BCE

(3) Ereuthalion & Giant, David & Goliath

Ereuthalion: Mentioned in Homer: 500-800s BCE — perhaps much earlier

David & Goliath: 1 Sam 17. Goliath came from Gath (destroyed in 800s BCE).  David traditionally lived around 1000 BCE by literalist Biblical scholars.  However, Biblical minimalists see the story and historicity as contrived.

Conclusion

It goes unspoken that of the Myth Semblance theories, I only give credibility to the Shared or Independent theories.  For literalist Christians, exposing that their Bible stories were borrow or stolen from other cultures is very threatening.  The apologetics to counter these charges are amazing.  Chronology is the biggest fight: which myth came first.  Keeping track of the archeology, vested interests and all the various shared myths is tough stuff.  Way over my pay grade.  But  I hope this post makes Neil’s post a bit richer for you.

Related Books:

Books that discuss the Greek Myth & Bible Story connection include:

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Divine Slaughter: The Bible & The Mahabharata

Violent ScripturesWhen it comes to Iron Age bloody myths, the Hindu Mahabharata beats out the Jewish/Christian Bible hands down by two orders of magnitude. Steve Wells documents how the God of the Bible sanctioned almost 25 million deaths, while the Mahabharata itself (11.26) tells us that 1,660,020,000 died in the dharma-sanctified mutual family slaughter on the plain of Kurukshetra alone — even more die elsewhere.

Question to readers: Am I a bad father to read such bloody literature to my 11 year-old daughter — not the Bible, mind you, but the Mahabharata? Maybe I should instead read her the gory tales of how Yahweh cheers on the Jews to slaughter of Moabites, Ammonites and Philistines — that way she can at least grow up knowing the same sacred stories as her friends and perhaps fit in better. What do you think?

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Note: See more of my posts on the Mahabharata here.

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Can you name the Jewish Scriptures?

Hebrew_Scriptures_TanakAsk the average goy if they can name the Jewish Scriptures, and he or she would probably answer: “The Old Testament” — a pejorative term, whose implications are naively obscure to most goy living in Christian privileged nations. However, if you ask a more informed goy, or even the average Jew the same question, their answer would probably be something like, “The Torah” or “The Tanakh”. But both answers are still incomplete, but better.

The “Torah (“The Teachings”) is the word also used by Jews themselves to refer to their scriptures. Originally “Torah” referred to the collection of the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and later was broadened to include the other 3 books of the mythical “Moses”.  Sometimes Jews use it to refer to the Tanakh also.  But my diagram to the right actually shows only a small part of Jewish Scriptures.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

A Hebrew-phile Jew may actually use the phrase “kitvei hakodesh”(holy writings) to refer to their scriptures. This phrase was first seen in the Mishnah: Shabbat 16:1. In fact, in the Christian Bible, uses the phrase in II Timothy 3:15-16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.”  Just as Christian canons vary, there was huge difference in what was considered sacred canons (collections) back at the time of the writing of II Timothy.  Note thought, that even a religion-savvy goy may not understand this reference to Shabbat 16:1 above. The Shabbat is part of the Talmud — about 4 times the size of the Tanakh — another part of the Jewish scriptures and is central to rabbinic Judaism, having developed starting in the 200-500s C.E.

The Jewish scriptures are even bigger than the Tanakh and the Talmud. Some Jews include the Kabbalah writings among their sacred writings and even Moses Maimonides’ (1135-1204) “The Thirteen Principles of Faith” are considered sacred among orthodox Jews.

The story of the evolution of Jewish scriptures is complex. When I started this post, I was simply composing as a lead-in post to discuss the complexity of Hindu Scriptures. But while writing, I realized that the Christian ideas about their own scriptures have probably highly prejudiced their way of looking at the writings or other religious traditions have been typified. Some of my initial suspicions are:

  • Christians, like Muslims, are people of a book.  This bibliolatry has tinted the eyes of Christians scholars looking at other traditions.
  • Protestant “Sola Scriptura” theology has even further put unhealthy freeze on the role of scripture in Christian’s eyes.
  • What people consider sacred sources for any faiths is usually much broader than is realized.
  • We underestimate the power of oral traditions.  They are source of written traditions and are still evolving.

Conclusion: “Sacred Scriptures” or “Scriptures” may be a very limiting concept when trying to truly understand the breadth of what comprises that which is precious to a religious community.

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Sources & Resources:

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Jews, Nurses and the Clergy

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The Pew Research on Jewish identity still fascinates me. Of those born after 1980, 32% claim to have no religion. And only 32% of Jews feel that believing is God is a prerequisite for their fellow Jews to call themselves “Jewish”. Even Jews who consider themselves religious Jews, 55% consider themselves so mainly by ancestry or culture. Indeed, I think this is true of most Christians — the role of culture and family play a far bigger aspect in their Christian identity than doctrine (whether they confess it or not). This is always to the chagrin of theology-peddling rabbis and clergy. They have vested interests in their myths — which ever version they are selling.

When people see through vested interests, the veil of honesty is torn down. A recent Gallup poll (below) shows that the trust of nurses remains high while (thank goodness), the trust of clergy is falling. When considered through the principle of vested-interests we can see why. Nurse’s training is to be a patient advocate, they aren’t pushing drugs (like drug reps), nor are they trying to push their authority (like doctors). Clergy are using the “God taboo” trick to get you to pay tithes and come to church. Unlike nurses, pharmacists, teachers and more, they have nothing practical to offer you besides made up theologies. It is no wonder trust drops as people gain insight.
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As people see through the god-talk and the twisted theology, wise clergy instead will make the switch to survive by marketing more entertainment, morality, marriage counseling, miracle healing or community get-togethers. God is becoming a tougher sell.

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Be a Mensch, Be an Atheist

CiceroAccording to Michael Grant (wiki), “the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language”. Yet I have never read Cicero and have barely heard of him. Though some consider “The Bible” to be great literature and necessary to truly understand Western Literature, what of Shakespeare, The Greek Myths, Plato and now Cicero. There is apparently so much to read in order to “truly” understand Western Literature, yet 90% of us morons (or more) get along just fine without it and novels keep getting written and absorbed.

Well, let me just quickly say something about Cicero, since I doubt you or I will probably ever read him. Apparently his works were rediscovered more than 1,000 years later by Petrarch (1304 CE – 1374 CE) who, under Cicero’s influence, is known as one of the first “humanists” and is credited with initiating the European Renaissance at that time. So Cicero has been a huge influence in theist-free thinking — freethought — atheism.

Indeed, the word “Humanism” was coined by Cicero (“humanitas“). In German, the word for “humanism” is “Menschlichkeit” which was absorbed by Yiddish (a German dialect used originally among Northern European Jews and thus mixes much Hebrew) and became “Mensch” which also simple means “person”.  It seems that Jews feel that being a person (a real person) is enough — or do they need the Torah?

Did you know that a huge percent of Jews consider themselves having “no religion”. Indeed, being “Atheist” and being “Jewish” are not incompatible among many Jews. See this Pew Report on Jewish Identity. “The Tablet” a fantastic Jewish web publication, just did a post entitled “Can you Be an Atheist and a Jew at the Same Time” David Silverman Says No.” Well, I will let others fight out their identity labels, but it clear that many Jews disagree with Silverman. Yet his influence is positive in helping people see behind the subtle and dangerous ideas snuck in on the coattails of both liberal Judaism and Liberal Christianity — not to mention with the conservatives.

Interestingly, as I went to read The Tablet, a plea for financial report popped up saying, “Be a Mensch [and support us]”. I love that phrase, because it is atheistic — it is a request to be a humanist, to be a good person and all that without any appeal to motivations by gods, demons, spirits, ancestors or the like. I felt it an irony to find Cicero’s atheism broadcasted loud and clear on a Jewish website with an article discussing being an Atheist Jew.

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Jewish & Hindu Heroes of Virtue

HarischandraPhilosophers have pondered the why’s of suffering for thousands of years. One such famous piece of philosophical literature has the following plot:

“The Lord of Heaven gives permission for a truly virtuous man to be tested. The bet: if wealth, status, family and more are taken from the virtuous man, he will forsake his virtue. But lo and behold, he does not! He is faithful to the Lord of Heaven.”

It sounds like The Book of Job (from the Jewish tradition), but it is from the Hindu tradition: The Legend of Harischandra. Job is thought to have been composed between 500- 300 BCE, while Harischandra was mentioned in the Mahabharata around 700s BCE. So, if your favorite tradition is the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps this will help you see that your scriptures are not so unique — nor are your wonderings.  For the rest of you, perhaps this will help widen your evaluation of religion in general.

Religious_Texts_HarischandraI first learned of this story last night as I watched a 1948 b&w Tamil (South India) film on netflix called “Harischandra” by K. S. Prakash Rao. And I was amazed to learn, according to wiki, that this moral legend deeply influenced Mahatma Gandhi who watched it several times in his childhood.  Indeed it continues to inspire billions of Indians to this day. It has been put into movies several times and is performed in plays all over India.

I have modified my Religious Scripture diagram to help you compare the timing of these two classic ancient texts on suffering and morality (click it to enlarge).

After watching the drama, I can see how it can be inspiring within the Hindu culture.  Like the Book of Job, however, I don’t find it impressive or inspiring. Both are considered “Great Literature” by their believers, but I can not recommend Harischandra except to the most stubborn Indophiles. Besides, it was 2 1/2 hours long!

Interestingly, both Job and Harischandra share to two horrible morals:

  1. We have no right to question God (the gods or our dharma) for the terrible things happening to us.
  2. All wrongs done to us can be made right by restoring property to us.
    In Job, for instance, God give Job back 14,000 sheep after 7,000 are taken from him.   God also allowed 10 of Job’s children killed and gets ten back, but the new daughters are more beautiful than any other women in the land.  HT: “Is There Justice in the Book of Job?
    While in Harischandra, the King looses his son and all his wealth but after his horrible suffering, all is OK when they are returned to him.

The ending of Harischandra is also reminiscent of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.  He is to behead his wife, out of duty, and as he swings the ax, the ax turns to a garland of flowers.

Did one tradition influence another?  I doubt it.  People are people everywhere, so it is not surprising that they create similar stories and similar solutions separately, even if bad solutions.

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Women & Iron Age Religions

Iron_Age_TextsIn the early 1800s, Christian Thomsen devised a three-age system to describe ancient societies’ stages of progress — the last of these ages was the iron age. Put simply, the times of these eras differed from civilization to civilization depending on the development of use of metals.  The approximate dates range as follows:

  • Stone Age:  9300 – 3300 BCE
  • Bronze Age:  3300 – 1200 BCE
  • Iron Age:  1200 – 200 BCE

The system is too simple but commonly used. I first read about the classification method after hearing Atheists criticize Christianity for being based on an “Iron Age religion”. When I read a bit, I found that many religions had Iron Age origins. The diagram above shows Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu and Chinese scriptures from the Iron Age.

The Iron Age treatment of women, across cultures, was abominable. See this Religious Tolerance site for some idea of how the Jewish Bible discusses women.  Christian apologists often defend or rationalize the Bible saying that it is misunderstood and that the Bible shows excellent treatment of women. Likewise, Muslim apologists justy their treatment of women.

Well today, I read this fun article where an Indian defends the treatment of women in the Hindu Stone Age scripture called the Mahabharata.  Wow, they even defend the Mahabharata.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the Mahabharata is a fantastic epic and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to explore a radically different Iron Age spirituality.  But like other Iron Age religions, the Mahabharata illustrates clearly the male domination at those times. But I confess that as for the women issues, the culture classification issues and more, I am not qualified to discuss them. But one thing seems certain to me, there are always folks ready to protect the integrity of their sanctified ancient cultures. Whether there is truth there or not, I suspect the reflex to protect comes from the exact same place.

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